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When preheating a stainless steel or cast-iron pan I tend to throw it on a high temperature with nothing in it and leave it on for several minutes until it is very hot. I then add the oil and cook. I can't add the oil at the start because it would burn during the heating process over the long time.

A couple people over the years have mentioned that you shouldn't heat a pan without having oil or food in it. I didn't pay much attention because my method has never caused any problems (that I know of).

Today I got a set of 5-ply stainless Henckels pans. I took a quick look at the instructions and it says "never leave an empty pan on the cook top.... this can quickly lead to irreversible damage....". This took me by surprise.

Is it bad to heat empty pans?

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  • never leave it on the cooktop, or never heat it empty? Heating it empty is a known problem, but I wonder if they're also concerned with how it cools down, or just maybe accidental heating
    – Joe
    Jan 22 at 15:30
  • I'll note that other manufacturers explicitly recommend heating their pans empty (e.g., T-Fal states, "You need to pre-heat your pan if you wish to get the best cooking results."). So it may depend on the pan/manufacturer.
    – Brian
    Jan 22 at 19:12
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It's a question of degree. Something bubbling in there will dissipate heat, keeping the pan below a temperature at which metals start to deform. A well-designed pan matched to an appropriate heat source (diameter, consistency) will put up with a great deal more heat than it takes to sear broccoli, but it's difficult to put a mark on where its limit lies that's clear to any user. Somewhere well below that limit is the difference between an empty and a not-empty pan, the observance of which makes Henckels and hungry people happy. Henckels may have tested their pans diligently and from their research could tell you that the real danger zone starts at x degrees, but their market isn't only cooks who also happen to have an infrared thermometer and don't mind tidying it away each time they reach for the oil. So they keep it simple, while also applying the precautionary principle. Stuff will usually do more than its vendors promise.

But this is also a question of time. Stuff will do amazing things... Until it breaks. A pan may perform flawlessly over very high heat for five years, or ten years, and one day suddenly go 'ping' and crack like an oyster. Its identical twin, used following every rule and guideline ever suggested for it, may remain intact until its bottom is worn away by wooden spoons. It depends on your reasons for cooking in the way that you do, and how much you enjoy it. It depends on how many spare pans you have, or whether you could easily replace a loss. For most pans in the world, the answer to your question would be a definite 'yes'. For your particular pans, at the degree to which you heat them, apparently the answer is a happy 'no'.

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  • Sorry I don't know what you mean. Do you have any data to back this up or tolerances or any info, or even temperatures? I've been blasting my pans on max heat empty for decades without any issues (seemingly).
    – Behacad
    Jan 22 at 14:43
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    @Behacad : there are a number of questions on here about warped & delaminated pans that were likely caused by too much heat or uneven heat : cooking.stackexchange.com/a/71853/67 . Multi-ply pans are sensitive to fast heat because (1) the different materials conduct heat differently and (2) the different materials expand differently when heated. If you heat a copper core before the stainless coating has a chance to expand, it may break the lamination.
    – Joe
    Jan 22 at 15:29
  • @joe Interesting. I've heard of issues with non-stick pans, but never with stainless or cast-iron pans. Any examples of questions relating to this?
    – Behacad
    Jan 23 at 2:48
  • @Behacad All of the questions that I know about on here are ‘how do I fix my warped pan’ or ‘my pan is making strange noises is it safe’. I don’t think anyone has specifically asked ‘is this bad’ until now. But the manufacturer obviously knows something or they wouldn’t have warned against it (if nothing else, it lets them void the warranty if you do it)
    – Joe
    Jan 23 at 12:54
  • @Behacad: You chose the right pans! (As, apparently, did the O.P.) But thin ones warp, and some mid-priced composite ones (copper-bottomed stainless, like my mum's) eventually come undone (as Joe remarks, above), even with careful use. My point was that (most) kitchens lack the tools of a product-testing laboratory, and technical tolerances would be difficult to measure IRL, their potential value difficult to implement. We read reviews, we follow recommendations, we rap the things with our knuckles, and get more or less what we paid for. Plus, disobedience is irresistible. Jan 26 at 8:56
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I highly doubt it, as it's what my household does every time we stir fry, and we stir fry pretty much everyday.

We used to use have Teflon coated frying pans, but we converted to use non-coated pans due to noticeable patches of Teflon missing on the pans, a.k.a. we ate the Teflon or the Teflon broke down and released toxic chemicals into the air...

This article from The Reluctant Gourmet points out that pros of both heating a pan after adding oil, and heating a pan before adding oil.

Here is the before-adding-oil part:

Reason For Heating Up a Pan Before Adding Fat

  • It is the way most culinary students are taught. Not a great reason but interesting to know.
  • It saves time. In professional kitchens, you will often see fry pans sitting on the stove tops getting hot so when the chef is ready to start cooking, they add a little oil and they are ready to go.
  • There is some advanced science that talks about the pores on the surface of metal pans and how heat opens them up so the oil can get in to prevent sticking. Wayyyyy over my head.
  • Most Importantly – It Helps Prevent Food From Sticking to the Pan

These are all good reasons why professional chefs like to start with hot pans but does it matter to a home cook?

To finish off by answering the question in the article: Yes, of course it does.

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    My roommates definitely burned all the teflon off of one of my pans one time. Everyone got a weird cough like we had been pepper sprayed. The scariest part was that everything silver in the house tarnished.
    – Willk
    Jan 20 at 3:21
  • @Willk: That sounds like a precursor to Teflon Flu. Doing that even once has a high probability of killing all the birds in your house, but I'm not aware of any concern that this causes long-term effects in humans...unless your pans have PFOA.
    – Brian
    Jan 22 at 19:09

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